A poet and Polish nationalist, Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (1798–1855) occupies a central position in the literature of his country. Polish students study and memorize his epic poem Pan Tadeusz (Master Thaddeus), and his writings have effectively connected the cause of Polish nationhood to the imaginative themes of the rising Romantic movement in literature.
Ironically, this Polish national hero never set foot in the Polish capital of Warsaw or in most other parts of the modern-day country of Poland. Mickiewicz (pronounced "Mits-KYEV-itch") was born in or near the town of Nowogrodek, now Navahrudak, Belarus, on December 24, 1798. The area was then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ruled by Russia; it was multicultural and multi-linguistic, but Mickiewicz was culturally Polish and wrote mostly in that language (sometimes in French, but never in Lithuanian). Some of his poems, including the famous opening lines of Pan Tadeusz , make patriotic references to Lithuania, but these should be understood in a regional rather than a national sense. Mickiewicz's father was a lawyer and a minor Polish nobleman; the family was never rich and fell into difficult financial straits after the father's death.
Mickiewicz's childhood was quiet, but his life began to intersect with world events when Napoleon Bonaparte's troops marched east toward Moscow in 1812, passing through Lithuania. He saw the defeated French army marching back westward after their brutal winter in a hostile country stripped of supplies, and his school was turned into a field hospital. In 1815 Mickiewicz began attending the University of Vilnius, studying physics and mathematics but also attending literature and other humanities lectures. He applied to a teachers' college there and was given a scholarship that granted him tuition-free education in return for a promise to teach in the area after he graduated.
While a student at the university, Mickiewicz joined a literary group called the Philomats' Society that also had a strong interest in liberal reformist politics and discussed such forbidden ideas as self-determination for the peoples of the western part of the Russian empire. Mickiewicz eventually began a thorough study of classical literature (he was able to work later in life as a professor of Latin classics) and of history and language. His first poem, "Zima Miejska" (City Winter) was published in 1818. Mickiewicz graduated in 1819 and was sent, according to the terms of his scholarship, to teach at a school in the then majority Polish town of Kowno (now Kaunas, Lithuania). Cut off from his friends in the city, he launched a hopeless romantic pursuit of a local nobleman's daughter and plunged into reading the poetic works of German and English Romantic poets: Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, and George Gordon, known as Lord Byron. Mickiewicz read English well and later translated some of Byron's works into Polish.
In 1822 Mickiewicz published a volume of poetry, Baladi i romanse (Ballads and Romances) that included love poems inspired by his recent romantic debacle. A second book, simply called Poezje II (or Poems II), included more extended poetic works. Grazyna was a long historical narrative poem set in medieval times, about a woman warrior who puts on her sleeping husband's armor and leads Lithuanian fighters into battle against a Teutonic tribe. The poem was among Mickiewicz's first in a strong nationalist vein. The book also included parts two and four of a fantastic and massive four-part poetic drama, Dziady (Forefathers' Eve), that Mickiewicz worked on for 10 years, finishing only the last three parts. The individual parts, only loosely connected, fit into a framework provided by the old Belorussian folk ritual named in the title, a ritual comparable to the Western Days of the Dead, in which ancestral ghosts are summoned. Part Two featured such characters as a the ghost of a heartless landlord, surrounded by predatory birds (the ghosts of his tenants) who quickly snatch away food before he can eat it.
In 1823, after an investigation of Lithuanian student groups by the czar's secret police, Mickiewicz was seized, charged with unlawful Polish nationalist activities, and put under house arrest for six months in a monastery. This was not a disaster; the punishment meted out by Russian courts was simply that Mickiewicz would no longer be permitted to live in the politically volatile western region of Russia's dominions. He was allowed to move freely to St. Petersburg, Russia, in the fall of 1824 and soon moved southward to Odessa (now in Ukraine) and then farther south still to the Crimea region, on the coast of the Black Sea. He published a new volume of poetry, Sonety krymskie (Sonnets from the Crimea, 1825), which used Turkish words and depicted the customs of the region's Tatar and Turkic peoples. His situation in Russia was eased by the musician Karolina Sobanska, a Polish noblewoman with whom he had an affair. She was also an agent of the Russian secret police, and apparently sent word to Moscow that Mickiewicz was not a political threat.
In fact, Mickiewicz did have friends who were participants in the Decembrist conspiracy of 1825, an attempted coup that sought to overthrow the Czar and bring democracy to Russia. After the coup's failure, however, Mickiewicz settled uneventfully in Moscow and gained admirers among the city's intellectuals and literati. He was gifted at improvising poetry—not in Russian but in French, widely spoken and understood by educated Russians. "What a genius!" exclaimed Russia's greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, on hearing Mickiewicz's recitations (according to the Books and Writers website). "What sacred fire! What am I compared to him?" The friendship of the two poets cooled after Mickiewicz became more involved with Polish resistance to Russia, but they retained a deep mutual respect.
Mickiewicz's Polish nationalism took shape in his writing. In 1828 in St. Petersburg he published Konrad Wallenrod , one of his most famous long narrative poems. Konrad Wallenrod told the story of a Lithuanian pagan raised and Christianized by a German tribe in which he becomes a commander. But one day he hears a performance by an old Lithuanian minstrel singing in his native tongue. He then intentionally leads the Teutons into a military disaster. Prefaced by a motto from Italian political theorist Machiavelli to the effect that it is necessary to be a fox and a lion at the same time, the poem was widely read by Poles as an allegorical call to arms against Russia. Russian censors, however, were fooled by the remote setting and permitted the work to appear.
In 1829 Mickiewicz was granted a Russian passport and decided to travel to Western Europe. Before he left he wrote "Faris," a poem about a Bedouin horseman that he modeled on Arabic literary forms (he read Arabic poems in translation). In Weimar, Germany, he visited Goethe, one of the few other writers to experiment with Arab literature. Moving on through Switzerland to Rome, Italy, he met the American writer James Fenimore Cooper, a sympathizer with the Polish cause; the two enjoyed riding in the hills around the city. Mickiewicz for his part admired the young American republic; one of his early poems, "Kartofla" (The Potato), prophesied that America would "kindle new fires in Europe from the spark of Freedom."
In late 1830 Polish military officers launched the November Uprising, an attempt to throw off Russian control of Poland. The rebellion lasted for several months, but by the time Mickiewicz could return north the Russians were back in control. Rather than attempting to cross a Russian-guarded border in Prussia, he joined a flood of Polish refugees in Dresden. There he wrote the third part of Dziady , a work both revolutionary and mystical that likened the suffering of Poland to Christ's Passion and featured references to a future savior, known by the mysterious name of "44." Perhaps troubled by guilt that he been on the sidelines during the struggle in Poland, Mickiewicz wrote several political tracts and edited a journal, the Polish Pilgrim . In 1832 he moved to Paris.
Mickiewicz's greatest work, however, had little to do with political struggles; he wrote Pan Tadeusz , he said, partly as an escape from the European continent's tumult. Pan Tadeusz , published in 1834, was a vast panorama of the vanished Lithuanian society of the poet's youth, composed entirely of 13-syllable Alexandrine couplets. Its 12 books run to about 260 pages in a new English translation published in 2006 by HarrowGate Press (available online). Centered on a feud between two noble families, the poem had comic elements and numerous remarkable passages of pure description of social institutions, rarely matched even in the vast nineteenth-century novels that the poem in some ways resembled. In other sections the poem had fairytale-like elements. Pan Tadeusz , wrote Czeslaw Milosz in The History of Polish Literature , "gradually won recognition as the highest achievement in all Polish literature for having transformed into poetry what seemed by its very nature to resist any such attempt. In it, Mickiewicz's whole literary training culminates in an effortless conciseness where every word finds its proper place as if predestined throughout the many centuries of the history of the Polish language."
Mickiewicz's later years were troubled. He married Celina Szymanowska in 1834, and the pair had six children between 1835 and 1850. Celina, however, was afflicted by mental illness, and Mickiewicz, who had no fixed source of income, made ends meet by teaching courses in classics and Slavic literature at the Lausanne Academy and the Collège de France. During this period he read the transcendentalist essays of American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, gave lectures about them, and translated some of them into French for the first time. He came under the spell of a Lithuanian-born mystic, Andrzej Towianski, who believed, among other things, that Napoleon Bonaparte was an intermediary figure between the human and divine worlds. Such mystical cults were not uncommon in Paris at the time, but using such ideas as the stuff of university lectures was unacceptable, as was Mickiewicz's growing sympathy with radical political movements in France. These factors caused Mickiewicz the loss of his university posts.
In 1848 revolutions broke out across Europe, as progressive forces attempted to overthrow the old monarchical regimes. Finally given the chance to put his patriotic ideals into direct action, Mickiewicz went to Italy and organized a legion of Polish fighters supporting northern Italy's independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire. His hope was that the empire would dissolve and propel Slavic peoples to freedom, but the rebellions fizzled. Discouraged, Mickiewicz returned to Paris and founded a journal called La tribune des peuples (The Tribune of the People), but it was soon shut down by the authorities. He took a job as an archivist at the Arsenal Library in 1852.
Mickiewicz never gave up his belief that a new order would emerge in Europe, and he sometimes espoused the idea that the Poles, the French, and the Jews would become a group of modern chosen people. In 1855 Western powers confronted Russia in the Crimean War, and Mickiewicz once again took up arms, organizing a battalion of Polish Jews and traveling to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). While there he contracted cholera and died suddenly on November 26, 1855. His status as a Polish national hero survived the Communist period and persisted into the new capitalist era; Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda made a film of Pan Tadeusz in 1999 that was seen by large segments of Poland's population, and schoolchildren still learn to memorize its elegant phrases.
Krzyzanowki, Julian, A History of Polish Literature , Polish Scientific Publishers, 1978.
Milosz, Czeslaw, The History of Polish Literature , Macmillan, 1969.
"Adam Mickiewicz," Books and Writers, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi (February 16, 2007).
"Adam Mickiewicz," Polish Culture, http://www.culture.pl/en/culture/artykuly/os_mickiewicz_adam (February 16, 2007).
"Adam Mickiewicz," Virtual Library of Polish Literature, http://www.univ.gda.pl/∼literat/autors/mick.html (February 16, 2007).